Best and Worse Professors


Irene Katele finds it use­ful. With just a few clicks of her mouse, the asso­ciate direc­tor of legal stud­ies at the UW Law School can read dozens of online com­ments from UW stu­dents about her per­for­mance as a teacher. A yel­low smiley-face icon tells her she’s doing a good job. A blue frown appears when a stu­dent has had a less-than-stellar expe­ri­ence. And Katele wel­comes feed­back of all kinds.

I can use the [university’s] writ­ten eval­u­a­tions and the Inter­net both for self-improvement and for ver­i­fi­ca­tion that what I’m doing is cor­rect,” she says.

The Web site help­ing Katele assess her per­for­mance is It offers col­lege stu­dents around the world a forum to extol the virtues of those who edu­cate them or, more com­monly, to vent invective.

Col­lege stu­dents spend a tremen­dous amount of money on edu­ca­tion,” says Patrick Nagle, the 23-year-old pres­i­dent, based near Bal­ti­more. “They should have the option to choose their pro­fes­sors and know what they are pay­ing for.”

Nagle sounds patently egal­i­tar­ian talk­ing about his Web site. He says it allows stu­dents to tai­lor their edu­ca­tion to their own needs. He refers to stu­dents as “cus­tomers” of pro­fes­sors, and sees him­self as an ordi­nary guy try­ing to give stu­dents a voice.

And, Nagle notes, “A lot of pro­fes­sors use the site to gauge how they’re doing. It’s not Rate­MyPro­fes­sors ver­sus the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. We’re there to help.”

Katele has the good for­tune of being highly rated. The site con­tains reviews for 1,582 UW-Madison pro­fes­sors, lec­tur­ers and teach­ing assis­tants, and Katele is tied for first place among those with 20 or more reviews. Her charges give her high marks in the cat­e­gories “Help­ful­ness” and “Clar­ity.” While her “Eas­i­ness” rank is tougher than some stu­dents may desire, Katele is called “cool,” “help­ful” and “respon­sive.” One stu­dent says she’s “the only pro­fes­sor who has kept me awake at 9:30 in the morn­ing.” Another anoints her “by far the very best pro­fes­sor I have had.”

Other pro­fes­sors aren’t so lucky. For every “best teacher ever,” there are many more com­ments that were once scrawled in dorm bathrooms.

Holy crap,” one stu­dent writes about one UW-Madison pro­fes­sor, “hope­fully this guy will die of old age before he teaches another class.” Another says a class was so bad he or she (the post­ings are anony­mous) “wanted to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.” Other post­ings offer sage obser­va­tions like, “She sucks at life.”

Nagle admits that con­tent on the site can be rough on some pro­fes­sors. He says angry teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors threaten to sue his com­pany for slan­der and libel “on a weekly basis.” But he calls the threats “tooth­less,” cit­ing the First Amend­ment as his pri­mary source of protection.

Ana­tole Beck, a long-tenured pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics, is among those who bear the brunt of stu­dents’ free­dom of speech. Sev­eral post­ings on label him the “worst pro­fes­sor ever.” Out of 38 reviews, none offer up the yel­low smi­ley icon.

It is impres­sive how hor­ri­ble he teaches, tests, and basi­cally inflicts dam­age to your math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing,” one stu­dent declares. Another shares a for­mula for Beck’s per­for­mance: “Here’s some math for you: Beck = Bad.”

Pro­fes­sor Beck is unfazed by these crit­i­cisms. As he sees it, such ire is more a reflec­tion of the sub­ject he teaches than his abil­i­ties as a teacher. In fact, six of the 10 lowest-rated UW-Madison pro­fes­sors are from the math depart­ment, lend­ing cre­dence to this claim.

Beck says the prob­lem is that many of his stu­dents are fresh out of high school and poorly pre­pared for classes that stress crit­i­cal think­ing. He blames “the kinds of things peo­ple learn to pass a stan­dard­ized test” for many of his stu­dents’ strug­gles and com­plaints. Math at the col­lege level requires stu­dents to do much more than mem­o­rize for­mu­las and theorems.

If all you want to do is cal­cu­la­tions,” Beck says, “there are machines that do that bet­ter than any­one in this [depart­ment], includ­ing me. But that’s not learning.”

Another rea­son for his neg­a­tive reviews, Beck adds, is that many of his stu­dents are not in his class vol­un­tar­ily. “There is a dif­fer­ence,” he says, “between the peo­ple who take my courses because they are inter­ested in actu­ally learn­ing the mate­r­ial, and those who are not inter­ested but required to do so.”

Bob Wil­son, another promi­nent mem­ber of the math depart­ment, agrees.

Stu­dents may react against me or any other teacher quite as much for [not want­ing to be in a class]than for how I, as an indi­vid­ual, teach,” he says, not­ing that math is an espe­cially sticky sub­ject. “In our soci­ety it is legit­i­mate to say, ‘Oh I could never do math.’ When was the last time you heard some­one say, ‘Oh I could never read’?”

Yet Wil­son, who like Beck teaches cal­cu­lus to under­grads, has escaped the mathematician’s curse He ties for fifth place on a list of the UW-Madison’s top-rated professors.

He’s eas­ily the best math teacher I’ll ever have,” writes one stu­dent. Adds another, “He’s like Santa Claus, only he teaches calculus.”

Wil­son admits the rows of smi­ley faces under his name are nice to see. And he says the con­sen­sus of his 33 reviews approaches some­thing resem­bling sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance. But he is uncon­vinced of the site’s validity.

It tends to be an extreme thing,” he says. “You must either love this per­son or hate this per­son to be moti­vated enough to [write a review].” boasts 5.75 mil­lion reviews of more than 770,000 pro­fes­sors. While Wil­son con­cedes that the sheer num­ber of reviews “indi­cates the need for some­thing like this,” he “would hes­i­tate to put a lot of weight on what I read there.”

But thou­sands of stu­dents do trust the site. Through her role as an under­grad­u­ate adviser, Katele has spo­ken with sev­eral advisees who told her they often use the site to research pro­fes­sors. As she sees it, is akin to the word-of-mouth net­work­ing from her col­lege days 30 years ago.

To this day, I can tell you which pro­fes­sors we thought were good and which were bad,” Ketele says. “I think is just an elec­tronic means of accom­plish­ing the same purpose.”

The best and the worst*

Top five

Irene Katele, lec­turer and asso­ciate direc­tor of legal stud­ies, Law School. Score: 4.8, based on 22 reviews.

Charles Hal­lisey, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of lan­guages and cul­tures of Asia. Score: 4.8, 22 reviews.

Ken­neth Mayer, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of polit­i­cal sci­ence. Score 4.7, 31 reviews.

David Canon, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of polit­i­cal sci­ence. Score 4.6, 45 reviews.

Robert Wil­son, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics. Score: 4.5, 33 reviews. (Four other UW pro­fes­sors ‘ Scott Mel­lor, Rod­ney Schreiner, David Lind­berg and Mark Wendt ‘ also scored 4.5.)

Bot­tom five

Ana­tole Beck, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics. Score: 1.1, based on 38 reviews.

Johanna Her­tel, assis­tant pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of eco­nom­ics. Score: 1.3, 21 reviews.

Ronald W. Dickey, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics. Score: 1.5, 47 reviews.

Arnold John­son, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics. Score: 1.8, 37 reviews.

Joel Rob­bin, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics. Score: 1.9, 23 reviews.

* Rank­ings based on a scale of 1–5 for UW-Madison pro­fes­sors with a min­i­mum of 20 reviews on



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